Dyonysus, otherwise known as Bacchus, is the god of, wait for it: grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre in ancient Greek religion and myth. The frenzy he induces is referred to as bakkheia. The Romans also referred to him as Liber, meaning free. Partaking in his wine and ecstatic dancing is said to free the reveller and in turn be possessed by Bacchus himself. Caravaggio’s work was commissioned by Cardinal Del Monte, owner of the Palazzo Madama in Rome. This palace is now the home of the Italian Senate. I walked past it frequently on my way to Gelateria Giolitti when living in Rome.
Why have I chosen Bacchus? Well in many ways I thought this enigmatic rendering of the god of wine (etc) was and is all of us during this third and ostensibly final lockdown. We are one and all indulging in excesses of our favourite vices (wine in the case of Bacchus), looking invitingly out into the infectious wilderness, waiting for someone to come and visit us. Our youth is fleeting and evaporated in a seemingly lost year, as exemplified by the rotting apple and overripe pomegranate, which Caravaggio here uses to hint at the theme of vanitas, which I talked about in the Boy with Bubble post a few weeks ago. The message is clear, youth is fleeting, wine is plentiful, why not give yourself away to excess and abandon while you can? I suspect that this will be a theme of the roaring 20s-esque resurgence of base hedonism which is to capture the world come July.
But what Caravaggio characterized was a body dedicated to sensuality rather than a soul infected with Christianity. The sly, dreamy eyes speculate on carnal things and promise gratification of the senses, not of the spirit, as “love cools without wine and fruit.” Yet the possibility of an underlying moral, bizarre as it may seem and contradicted by appearances, cannot be totally ignored. The touches of corruption in the still life – the wormhole that has spoiled the apple, the pomegranate that has burst from overripeness – hint again of the Vanitas theme, that the boy is triumphant only in his youth, which will vanish as quickly as the bubbles in the carafe of freshly poured wine. Caravaggio
The homoerotic themes are evident in Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Whether this was the maestro vocalising his own homosexual desires (bedding younger men was acceptable in 1596) or insinuating that Cardinal Del Monte was partial to them is up for academic debate. Either way the sensuality which comes through is striking. The feeble effort to make himself decent, the inviting gaze and proffering of the wine goblet are together masterfully rendered. I am always agog at how Caravaggio seems to present the finger nails of his subjects so successfully also, as an aside. The Carmen Miranda-esque headpiece is also fantastic.
“An explosion of fantasy, energy and playful eroticism”
Overall I think this is becoming one of my preferred paintings. I will see if I can have a fridge magnet made of it. It is the perfect subject for excess and abandon and I imagine Cardinal Del Monte was thrilled with it. Bacchus currently resides in the Uffizi art gallery in Florence.
William Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a French academic painter. His works comprised mostly mythological themes and modern interpretations of Classic scenes. His most famous work is of course the Birth of Venus (seen below), painted in 1979. There is a bit of nudity in this piece so please scroll very fast if you do not wish to be startled. The piece I will be discussing today is Dante and Virgil, painted in 1950 when the artist was just 25. It shows a scene from the Inferno where Capocchio, and Gianni Schicchi are fighting. The former is biting the later rather aggressively.
Having failed on two occasions to win the Prix de Rome (1848 and 1849), Bouguereau was hungry for revenge. His early submissions to the Salon reveal this fierce desire to succeed. After his ambitious Equality before Death (1849), the young man aimed to create an impression once again. He put forward an even larger painting inspired by Dante whose work was much loved by the Romantics and who captured all its dramatic beauty. This painting was inspired by a short scene from the Inferno, set in the eighth circle of Hell (the circle for falsifiers and counterfeiters), where Dante, accompanied by Virgil, watches a fight between two damned souls: Capocchio, a heretic and alchemist is attacked and bitten on the neck by Gianni Schicchi who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance. Museé D’Orsay
Dante and Virgil can be seen in the background witnessing this horrifying scene. The theme of terribilita and horror is one to which Bouguereau would not return. But what a painting! The devil/ demon floating in the background, the anguished look of Dante and Virgil and the mound of tortured souls to the right makes for quite a frightening scene. Of course the main attraction, as it were, are the two fighters in the central foreground. The bite itself is quite beautifully executed. One can see by the exaggerated contortion of the cheek muscle and throbbing vein in the biter’s forehead that he is putting a lot of effort into this act of facial vandalism. The muscles and tendons as well as the poses themselves are exaggerated by Bouguereau to maximise the principle themes in this painting. This is the artist pushing the boundaries of the medium. Notice how the muscles are almost distorted form the strain in a most unnatural way. the interplay between shadow and light added with the mound of souls in the right background is quite startling.
Overall this was a striking piece which I could not quite take my eyes off of when I first saw it. It is masterly done and daring for someone so young. This is a testament to the talent of Bouguereau, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
It is not difficult to find examples of social distancing in Edward Hopper’s works. This blog has explored Office in a Small City, which is a reality I face daily being one of about three people working in my office. Hooper (1882-1967) is one of the great American artists to have ever lived. He is most widely known for his oil paintings but was also highly proficient at watercolours and etchings, having produced over 800 works during his career. Hopper seems to be the perfect artist for this time of extreme alienation, isolation and loneliness. Del Ray Artisans, who are hosting an exhibition called After Edward Hopper: Themes of Solitude and Isolation” describe the themes in Hopper’s works as being profoundly American in that they represent “perseverance, fortitude, diversity, and an egalitarian spirit in spite of adversity, impoverishment, and social injustice.” Del Ray Artisans. With this in mind, we shall examine Hopper’s wonderful Sunlight in a Cafeteria, painted in 1958.
Hopper lived from 1882 to 1967, but his paintings have an emotional resurgence today. As the world moved into 2021, the pandemic has come with it. Many Americans could not or chose not to see families and friends for the holidays, afraid that contact would spread the virus. We did not throw parties on New Year’s Eve, instead staying in our homes with our dinners and our countdown shows. We have spent the better part of a year like this: isolated.
Isolation is what Hopper’s paintings capture so well. In 1927’s Automat, a woman sits by herself at a small table. She already has her coffee, and, though there is another chair at the table, we cannot know if she is waiting for someone, or if that someone will ever arrive. 1930’s Early Sunday Morning shows a series of storefronts in the daytime, all dark, all empty. In Room in New York, painted in 1932, a woman and man sit in a room, together but also somehow apart. He’s reading a paper. Her back is mostly to him while she half-heartedly tinkers with the piano. In my personal favourites, Morning Sun from 1952 and Office in a Small City from 1953, a woman on a sun-kissed bed and a man in a small office, respectively, sit alone and stare out of their windows at the world, or at least the little parts of the world that they can see. New Statesman
Sunlight in a Cafeteria 1958
Hopper depicts two individual diners in a cafe in a quiet side street. They are not being waited on, despite the broad daylight and lack of other customers to attend to. The perspective of this scene is taken from the inside of the diner. In these ways Sunlight in a Cafeteria is the direct mirror image of Nighthawks. This is an interesting painting for Hopper. This does not depict a lone figure of figures isolated but instead depicts two people on the cusp of communication. How interesting that Hopper chose the moment before the first contact between two presumably single lonely people (in a cafe on their own). The woman’s hair is quite dazzling and together with her dress represent a splash of colour in the centre ground of the painting. I would add that the wonderful symmetrical shade detail is also meant to highlight her. Perhaps we are seeing this painting through the perspective of the potential lover about to speak to her.
Hopper is a master of subtle allusion. We see a man and woman seated at separate tables in a sunny cafeteria. They are the only customers. What interests the artist is the suspenseful moment before a first tentative contact is made, the mental and emotional forcefield that can arise between two strangers. Edward Hopper
Having mentioned Nighthawks above, I must draw your attention to Kelly MacConomy’s Covid Nighthawks reimagined, below, which presents a splendid scene. MacConomy must have wondered how to make Hopper’s work more lonely. Perhaps reflecting on the Government response to COVID19 was the only way. This is an observation, not a criticism. This is not a political blog!
Kelly MacConomy’s Covid Nighthawks reimagined
Together these two paintings exemplify some of what I imagine must be the national mood throughout the lockdowns this last year. They are wonderful, insightful and terribly affecting.
Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883) was a French Modernist painter often referred to as the father of modernism. He was a crucial figure in the change from Realism to Impressionism and was close friends with other pivotal figures of the time such as Renoir, Monet and Degas, meeting the latter as early as 1859, when the pair would be found together copying paintings in the Louvre as practice. Publicly, Manet was a divisive figure. He was rejected year after year by the Paris Salons, a professional art society which was seen as the quickest way for artists to obtain recognition. The Paris Salon first gave Manet recognition for The Spanish Singer (below) in 1861 but then steadily rejected his submissions. This was perhaps compounded by Manet’s scandalous 1863 painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which depicted a nude woman enjoying breakfast with two fully clothed men while a second is returning from a bath in a nearby stream, also not wearing very much. This and Olympia, a painting depicting a prostitute waiting for her client, nude, also caused considerable controversy. Together, these two paintings are seen as a watershed moment which marked the beginning of modern art.
By 1867, when his submissions were rejected both by the Paris Salon and the Exposition Universelle, Manet constructed a pavilion opposite the street of the latter in Paris, where his pictures were displayed for all to see. This was the same year Boy Blowing Bubbles was created.
Édouard Manet—the eldest son of an official in the French Ministry of Justice—had early hopes of becoming a naval officer. After twice failing the training school’s entrance exam, the teenager instead went to Paris to pursue a career in the arts. There he studied with Thomas Couture and diligently copied works at the Musée du Louvre. Met Museum
Boy Blowing Bubbles was painted in 1867. It’s subject matter is 15 year old Léon Koelin-Leenhoff, the illegitimate son of Manet’s future wife, Dutch pianist Suzanne Leenhoff. The boy may have been fathered by Manet himself, but this is the subject matter for an entirely new post. I love this painting. The nearly monochrome palette and dark background are almost a love letter to the Masters which preceded Manet, such as Murillo, Frans Hals and even Rembrandt, more on the latter below. I enjoy the free and direct style of this piece. The central subject is clearly defined, the contrast between the dark background and his light clothing propel him forward in a delightful way. This painting is consistent with Manet’s Realist desire to paint modern life.
The clothing is modern, by the standards of the time, and Léon is blowing a bubble of soap, a sign of brevity of life. This seemingly strange comparison is symptomatic of the Homo Bulla Est concept (man is bubble). This concept holds that while a person (homo) may look very solid and substantial, their life is as fleeting as a bubble (bulla), insubstantial, and completely fragile (History of Bubbles). These bubbles are most commonly seen in Vanitas paintings, loosely translated from Latin as the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. A great example of this for me is the 1663 painting by Karel Dujardin, Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, below. This is so wonderfully camp that I think I will have a fridge magnet made out of it. The child is standing on a bubble on a shell, doubly reinforcing the transience of his life. The surrealist element of the shell surfing is meant to remind us of the transience of happiness and the brevity of human life. The fabric, reflective bubbles, clouds, waves, and the depth of the perspective make this a winning painting for me. This is perhaps a silly painting but it is undeniably fun and depicted beautifully.
… the artist’s first champion, Émile Zola, had published a lengthy and glowing article about Manet. “The future is his,” Zola proclaimed. He insisted that the much-maligned Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which was included in Manet’s 1867 exhibition) would one day hang in the Louvre. Zola proved prophetic; it took almost seventy years, but the painting entered the collection of the Louvre (now Musée d’Orsay) in 1934. Met Museum
Finally, I would like to highlight one final bubble painting which I have stumbled upon during my research for this post. Cupid Blowing Soap Bubbles by Rembrandt, painted in 1634, serves as an early example of the Hommo Bulla Est concept. Cupid was the son of Mercury and, in Greek mythology, represents love in all its varieties. The bubble we have already covered. Therefore putting these together, this ostensibly cheery portrait is actually somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of love. I adore the depiction of the wings and the bubble itself. I also cannot help but notice that Cupid looks a little bit like Rembrandt himself!
I hope these three or four paintings have brought a small amount of joy into your day. Thank you for sticking with me through this soapy post!
“quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex”
Housed at the extraordinary Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Boy in a Turban Holding a Nosegay is a masterpiece by Michael Sweerts (1618-1664). Sweerts was a Flemish painter most recognised for his allegorical and genre paintings as well as portraits and tronies (common type, or group of types, of works common in Dutch Golden Age painting and Flemish Baroque painting that show an exaggerated facial expression or a stock character in costume.) Sweerts was rather a busy painter, having worked in Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam, Persia and India (Goa). It may interest the reader to know I have been to all of these places except Persia, but the night is young. Equally I did go to Bruges rather than Brussels in the Before Time but these are small details.
Boy in a Turban holding a Nosegay has been associated with the group of paintings that Sweerts executed at the end of his Amsterdam period. The subject of the present painting and the sex of the figure have been the focus of debate and have given rise to different interpretations. The gentle, delicate features and the turban hiding the hair make it difficult to define the subject precisely, and the canvas was previously entitled Figure in a Turban. It was only in 1958, when the painting was included in an exhibition on Sweerts in Rotterdam, that the sitter was described as a boy, a reading that has been maintained in the present day.
The fact that the boy is holding a nosegay has led to the suggestion that this is a representation of the sense of Smell. Sweerts executed two, now dispersed, series on the Five Senses. In one series, which uses a similar format to the present painting, five male figures in exotic dress hold objects and animals related to the senses. Museo Thysen
When I was last in Madrid I did not take the opportunity to visit this museum preferring instead to go to the Prado and the Royal Palace where I saw a miniature version of my favourite sculpture in the world, which can be found in the Cappella Sansevero in Naples. See the miniature below, which I first beheld in the Carlos III. Majestad y Ornatos exhibition.
But I digress, see below the painting which is the subject of this post:
This for me is absolutely astounding work. The clarity of the skin is lovely, the light falling on the turban is particularly gorgeous. If you look at the eyes you can see them watering slightly. The strands of the patterned undergarment of the turban is exceptionally well done.
The highlight of this painting for me is the nail depiction. The flowers in the nose gay are a little crude in comparison to this. But with the overall impression this has left on me I can forgive Mr Sweerts. The nails are just immaculate. The colour is perfect, the shape is perfect, the sheen is extraordinary. And the shade from the nose gay onto the hands is a particularly fine detail.
Why have I chosen this as my birthday post, I hear you ask? Well this painting has given me a reason to reminisce about the wonderful time I spend in Madrid and made me consider a future trip with M. Equally it is undeniably a masterly work of supreme skill from my preferred period in art. I cannot but appreciate the overall excellence of this painting. In short, it has made me rather happy. And being rather happy is all I want on this most special milestone in my headlong journey towards the grave.
This is an obscure artist so I’ll ask you to bear with. I cannot remember where I found him but I am glad I did. This artist has provided me with a wealth of wonderfully colourful surrealist pieces, one of which I shall eventually purchase (promotions permitting) and hang on my wall. See below three of my favourite pieces by Mr Naumovski.
Vangel Naumovski was born in 1924 in the Macedonian city of Ohrid (then part of Yugoslavia). He was interested in art at a young age, but this led nowhere as he left school after third grade and worked a series of odd jobs — gardener, farmer, butcher. After a stint in the army, he enrolled in art school in Skopje in 1946, lasting a year. He then worked in a woodcarving shop in Ohrid for thirteen years. During this time he was painting, initially in a folk myth style which led to him being considered a Naive artist.
In the early 60s his painting morphed into a gooey sort of surrealism. He first exhibited in Yugoslavia in the 50s, and later had one-man shows in Rome, London, Paris, and Toronto. At some point he started a gallery in his home in Ohrid (it is unknown whether it is still open). He died in 2006. Wikiart
Black Cradle of Life 1963
Why do I like this? Firstly I ought to refer you to an earlier post where I postulated that good art is personal and there isn’t a legitimate metric for whether art is objectively good or not. With this in mind and considering the above, I am quite taken by the colour combination on this one. The black and yellow and blue make for quite an enticing painting. I suppose from the title that this is supposed to represent something seedy (pardon the pun). I think it’s lovely.
Green Oasis is a joyful surrealist piece. I love the vibrant colours swimming together and almost tied up with the exquisite fronds in a way which is creative and fun. These dream like visuals are impressive and quite precise. The contrast between the large blobs of colour and the minor ‘roots’ are appealing to me. And in the end, I think it is great fun, which is what counts.
Horizontal Galaxy 1980
One of Naumovski’s later pieces is Horizontal Galaxy. I particularly enjoy the bright background of this in contrast to the colours in the globules of galaxy and the fine lines which remind me somewhat of caramelised onions when they are overdone. I love the geometric shapes and especially the blues.
These pieces probably don’t mean anything and won’t have great reverberations in the wider art world but I like them. And this is my blog. I enjoyed these very much and hope you do also.